Secret Identities

Last night I watched the second half of Spider-Man 2.

Before you think I have some secret Hollywood connections giving me access to advanced screenings, I’m not talking about the new movie, coming out this weekend.

This was the older, Tobey Maguire version, with Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus. I’ve seen it I can’t tell you how many times, but it was on FX leading up to Fargo (which has been fabulous and which I do not miss, by the way) and so I left it on.

Peter Parker IS Spider-man
Peter Parker….is Spider-man?!?

Partly because I found myself waiting for that moment.

Come on – you know the one.

It’s the ending, where Spider-man’s mask is ripped off by Dr. Octopus while Mary Jane is held prisoner on the other side of the room. Then he turns around, no mask, and she realizes, with her trademark shocked look, “OMG. Peter Parker IS Spider-man.”

I’ve seen this moment, or similar ones for other super-heroes, play out a thousand times in a thousand different comic books. As it turns out I have collected a few of these alleged comics. Yet somehow I still find it immensely satisfying. So, tonight, while I waited for that expression to come across Kirsten Dunst’s face, I took a moment to wonder why that might be.

Here’s my conclusion: we all want people to know who we really are.

Most of us confine that knowledge – an awareness of our true selves, our secret identities – to a precious few. Not that we should. No, probably it should be clear to everyone exactly who we are. We should shout it from the mountaintops.

But only a few people do this. The rest of us hide behind our masks.

Yet, secretly, we wish people would somehow magically discover us, unmask our true selves with that shocked expression. “OMG! THAT’S who you were all along?!?”

This got me thinking about writing, and characters, and reading. And I realized that, perhaps, unmasking the true identity of the hero is probably one of the great pleasures of reading. Even when you know it’s coming. Even if you’ve seen it before.

Typically protagonists change over the course of a novel, becoming who they really should have been all along. Their secret identity is revealed and the reader feels they played some part in that.

And, before a book ever ends up in a reader’s hands, the writer unmasks her own characters during the writing process, discovering them page by page, word by word, until finally their mask is off completely.

Then with a shocked look on his face, the writer says “OMG! THAT’S who you were all along?!?”

And that – the writer unmasking the character first, only so the reader can do their own unmasking later – those secret identities, makes writing pretty darn cool. If you ask me.



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